Emily (Elizabeth) Dickinson 1830–1886
Although only seven of Dickinson's poems were published during her lifetime—all anonymously and some apparently without her consent—Dickinson is considered a premier American poet. Choosing the lyric as her form, Dickinson wrote on a variety of subjects, including nature, love, death, and immortality. As she honed the lyric format, Dickinson developed a unique style, characterized by compressed expression, the use of enjambment, and an exploration of the possibilities of language. In 1955 the publication of Thomas H. Johnson's edition of Dickinson's complete poems prompted renewed scholarly interest in her work. Modern criticism has focused on Dickinson's style, structure, use of language, and the various themes found in her poetry. Some critics have examined these same issues from a feminist viewpoint. Regardless of the critical angle, most modern scholars incorporate some discussion of Dickinson's life experiences into their examinations of her work.
Critical and popular interest in Dickinson's life has been fueled by the mythology that has grown up around the limited factual knowledge available. Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1830. The daughter of a prosperous lawyer and an invalid mother, Dickinson's schoolwork was often interrupted by time spent at home learning domestic chores. Beginning in 1835, she spent four years at a primary school and then attended Amherst Academy from 1840 to 1847. From there, Dickinson advanced to Mount Holyoke Female Seminary for one year, where her studies were influenced by New England Puritanism. This, together with Dickinson's Unitarian upbringing, heavily influenced her poetry's structure—the lyric form she used was a revision of the hymn quatrain—as well as its content—religious themes are the focus of many of her poems. Despite these influences on her work, though, personal faith eluded her and she remained an agnostic throughout her life.
After her year at Mount Holyoke, Dickinson returned to her family's home where she remained almost exclusively for the rest of her life. From 1851 to 1855,
she made a few brief visits to Boston, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. Biographers speculate that on one trip to Philadelphia, Dickinson fell in love with a married minister, the Reverend Charles Wadsworth, and that her disappointment from this affair triggered her subsequent withdrawal from society. This, and other rumors of romantic entanglements, are largely conjecture; however, it is known that her reclusiveness intensified over the years. Her personal habits—always wearing white, never leaving her home, refusing to receive visitors—earned her a reputation for eccentricity. In 1874, Dickinson's father died unexpectedly, leaving her to care for her invalid mother, who died in 1882. Dickinson died in 1886 after being diagnosed with Bright's disease, a kidney disorder.
Over the course of her writing career, Dickinson composed nearly eighteen hundred poems, all in the form of brief lyrics. She explored a variety of subjects: the austerity and beauty of nature, experiences of love and loss, and her own skeptical attitude toward religion and immortality, as well as her fascination with death. Drawing heavily from biblical sources and influenced by such poets as George Herbert, Shakespeare, and John Keats, Dickinson developed a highly personal system of symbol and allusion, assigning complex meanings to colors, places, times, and seasons. She experimented with compression, enjambment, and unusual rhyme schemes, and also employed an idiosyncratic use of capitalization and punctuation, thereby creating a poetic style that further distinguished her verse from contemporary American poetry.
Initial criticism of Dickinson's work, following the 1890 publication of Poems of Emily Dickinson, was largely unfavorable, yet her work received widespread popular acclaim. Willis Buckingham has noted that readers in the 1890s often praised Dickinson's "inspired" thoughts and emotions rather than her poetic technique. Modern critics, though, have come to appreciate Dickinson's accomplishments in language and poetic structure. Margaret Dickie has challenged critics who have attempted to provide a narrative analysis of Dickinson's work by studying her poetry as a whole. Dickie maintains that the poems were written as lyrics, and should be examined as such. Karen Oakes has explored Dickinson's use of metonymy to establish an intimate, feminine discourse with her readers. Other critics, such as Judy Jo Small and Timothy Morris, have analyzed Dickinson's rhyme structure, Small noting the acoustical effects of this structure, and Morris observing how Dickinson's patterns of rhyme and enjambment developed over time.
Many critics have also explored the various themes of Dickinson's poetry against the backdrop of events in her personal life. Among these are Jane Donahue Eberwein, who has studied the poems concerning love and its redemption, and Nadean Bishop, who has focused on Dickinson's spirituality, specifically the poems that seem to indicate the poet's rejection of religious dogma in favor of a private version of God and heaven. Paula Hendrickson, who has examined Dickinson's poems that focus on the precise moment of death, notes that these poems are typically treated as a subcategory of the death poem genre and are rarely treated individually.
Power is another of Dickinson's themes that has received a great deal of critical attention. R. McClure Smith has examined how Dickinson uses the trope of seduction to explore her relationship to patriarchal power. Feminist critics have also found the issue of power of great significance in Dickinson's work. Cheryl Walker maintains that while many feminist critics try to assert that Dickinson's life was "a model of successful feminist manipulation of circumstances," in fact, the poet was attracted to masculine forms of power. Paula Bennett, on the other hand, has contended that Dickinson's relationships with women were more significant than her struggles with men, male power, or male tradition. Bennett argues that Dickinson's relationship with women provided her with the comfort and safety necessary for the poet to explore her own sexuality. This contention, Bennett states, is supported by a reading of Dickinson's poems that recognizes their homoeroticism and use of clitoral imagery.
The enigmatic details surrounding Dickinson's life continue to fascinate readers and critics alike. Yet it is the technical originality of her poetry, the variety of themes she addressed, and the range and depth of intellectual and emotional experience she explored that have established Dickinson's esteemed reputation as an American poet.